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May 30, 2012

BEN FELLER

AP White House Correspondent

WASHINGTON — This is a little awkward.

President Barack Obama can’t seem to stop bad-mouthing the record of former President George W. Bush. But on Thursday, Obama is going to welcome his predecessor and proudly preside as Bush’s image and legacy are enshrined at the White House forever.

Obama and first lady Michelle Obama will join Bush and his wife, Laura, as their official portraits are unveiled. The incumbent is keeping up a presidential tradition typically defined by cheer and graciousness, but not without some uneasiness.

Hardly a day goes by without Obama or his aides talking about the mess they inherited — meaning, from Bush.

It was just one week ago that Obama, revving up campaign donors, turned Bush into a punch line. Obama depicted Republican rival Mitt Romney as a peddler of bad economic ideas, helping the rich at the expense of the middle class, and then added to laughs: “That was tried, remember? The last guy did all this.”

Now the last guy is coming back.

So, too, will his father, former President George H.W. Bush and the former first lady Barbara Bush. The Obamas will hold forth in the ornate East Room as George and Laura Bush are honored for their service before an invited audience of Bush friends and former staff members.

It will be a rare limelight moment for Bush, who has not been back in more than two years.

Obama and Bush have a cordial and respectful relationship, but they are not close. Both are political veterans who are able to separate political tactics from what they see as an overarching community among people who have served in the Oval Office, according to people close to them.

Only 44 men in history, and five men alive, have held the job.

“President Bush has been around politics a long time. He’s been around how presidents deal with each other for a long time,” said Tony Fratto, one of his former spokesmen at the White House. “He has an understanding for separating the necessities of political rhetoric from the job itself.”

Bush showed that all through 2008, when Obama assailed his record on war and the economy en route to the White House. It was hard to remember at times that Obama was running not against Bush, who was finishing the last year of a tumultuous eight-year term, but rather Arizona Sen. John McCain.

When it was done, Bush welcomed Obama to the White House with grace and demanded that his team ensure a smooth transition.

History has marked this moment before, with grudges put aside.

When Bill Clinton came back for his portrait unveiling, Bush lauded him for “the forward-looking spirit that Americans like in a president.” Never mind that Bush had run for the presidency to “restore honor and dignity” after Clinton’s sex scandal.

And when Clinton welcomed back George H.W. Bush, whom he had defeated, he said to him and his wife: “Welcome home. We’re glad to have you here.”

“I would be surprised if there’s very much tension” this time around, said Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University who has long followed Bush’s career.

Obama has enlisted Bush’s help on earthquake relief for Haiti, and the two stood together in New York City last year in marking the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks on America. They have also spoken at least three times at signature moments over the last three years, including the killing of Osama bin Laden.

Still, in the midst of a tight election year, the Obama-bashing-Bush’s-record sets a backdrop.

“This president is looking for someone to blame,” Romney said while campaigning in Colorado this week. “Of course, he started off by blaming George Bush, and that worked for a while but, you know, after three and a half years that wears kind of thin.”

The White House points out that Obama praises Bush sometimes, too, as he did in March over Bush’s willingness to take on immigration.

The visit is layered with political story lines.

Bush’s brother Jeb is a potential vice presidential candidate to Romney. Bush’s father has developed a kinship of sorts with Obama. And then there is Bush himself, who has endorsed Romney but is still viewed by many in his party as politically toxic.

More than any president in recent memory, Bush has not just intentionally faded from the public spotlight but all but disappeared from it.

“George W. Bush has been remarkably, and even strangely silent, even once you respect his sentiment that he did not want to get in Barack Obama’s way,” said Jillson. “I think part of that is just giving himself time to recover from what had to be an astoundingly difficult close to his presidency.”

The politically impassioned issues of that time have faded. The Iraq war is over. The financial sector has stabilized after a devastating crash in late 2008. But the nation is still feeling the cost of the enormous recession, which is Obama’s problem now.

Bush was last at the White House in January 2010. That was to join Obama and Bill Clinton in support of Haiti humanitarian relief.

Aides to both Obama and Bush are downplaying the Thursday reunion as a time of politics. Bush spokesman Freddy Ford said the former president and first lady are grateful to the Obama and looking forward to catching up with faces from their past, including staff at the Executive Mansion.

“I think there is a community here with very few members that transcends political and policy differences,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said. He made that comment in the same briefing Wednesday in which he reminded everyone that Obama inherited a huge budget deficit (from Bush.)

Jenna Bush Hager, one of the George W. Bush’s daughters, said she was invited for the ceremony and that the day will include a private lunch for the Bushes with the Obamas. She told “Fox & Friends” the day will be a chance to “celebrate his work, ‘cause he worked pretty hard so I think he deserves at least a painting.”

As to where it will go, she said: “Probably in the very back somewhere. I’m just kidding.”

The painting will actually hang prominently in the formal entrance hall to the White House, the Grand Foyer.